February is Black History Month and this week we write about a woman that most of us have never heard of, but who has written a song that has been sung by countless young men and women as a part of their college life.
We start by noting that before 1912, Tennessee had no state school that offered a higher education for its African American residents.
The idea of a state school, as opposed to a private college or university, was a radical notion in the first place. Tennessee had a poor track record when it came to free public education. But an institute for higher education was even more controversial — mainly for the simple fact that it would cost taxpayers money!
The U.S. Commissioner of Education wrote a bill in 1906 to establish “four normal schools, three for white and one for colored teachers” in Tennessee. A ‘normal’ school was a college that trained teachers as part of its curriculum.
The bill failed in 1907 and was heatedly contested in 1909 based on the reluctance by white legislators to establish a Negro normal school. A compromise was reached when the combined name “Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes” was proposed, and officially designated as the state land grant college and a normal school for the state’s black population.
In 1912, the college opened in Nashville and was the predecessor to what is now known as Tennessee State University.
A book on the history of the school has this interesting note, “As the campaign for state-supported normal schools progressed in Tennessee, aggressive, articulate black citizens such as Dr. R.H. Boyd, Benjamin Carr and J.C. Napier began intensive campaigns to assure that equitable educational provisions would be made for black Tennesseans.”
Benjamin Carr was a Trousdale County native and had moved to Nashville to hold a job in the state government. He was also a close friend to the governor.
We have already written about Mr. Carr, who would also teach agriculture at the school, but he was not the only Trousdale County native to make their mark at the fledging university.
Laura Averitt was born in 1891 to James and Lucy Averitt of Trousdale County.
James and Lucy had been born into slavery and denied any chance at schooling, so they saw to it that their only child got an education.
When Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial opened up, Laura was not only one of the school’s first students as a member of the Class of 1918, but after graduating she was hired to be one of the school’s English teachers.
From her first day on campus, Laura was active in the college’s social life, and was quick to realize that the new school needed an alma mater.
“Alma mater” is Latin for ‘dear mother’ and is the name given to a school’s hymn or song that pays tribute to the school itself, as the school is the “mother” of each student and she gives life to them and sends them out into the world.
The young college didn’t have a special song and Laura Averitt saw to it that it did.
Laura penned these words:
“In the land of golden sunshine
By the Cumberland’s fertile shore
Stands a school for greater service
One that we adore
Alma Mater, how we love thee
Love thy white and blue
May we strive to meet thy mandates
With faith that’s true.”
For over one hundred years, the students of Tennessee State University have sung these words, all written by a native of Trousdale County!
Laura would go on to teach at TSU for 48 years. As she was unmarried, after retiring she moved to Indianapolis to live with a cousin and was buried there following her death in 1975.